The pros and cons of shared connectivity services; what SA’s higher education should also be considering

Published On: 14 October 2021|

For the past two decades the Tertiary Education & Research Network of South Africa (TENET) has provided research and education networking services to enable collaborative inter-networking by universities, science councils and associated research institutions in the country.

It is the operator of the national research and education network, the South African National Research Education Network (SANReN) and provides a number of sector-specific Information and Communication Technology (ICT) services. As part of a larger grouping of trust and identity-related services, it operates an Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID) Consortium serving South African higher education and research.

Mr Duncan Greaves (right), CEO at TENET, provided some observations on establishing and sustaining shared digital services among higher education institutions during the Shared Services: Drivers, Benefits, Success Factors and Challenges session of last week’s 2nd Universities South Africa (USAf) Higher Education Conference, conducted in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE). Shared Services was the sub-theme of USAf’s Funding Strategy Group’s third breakaway session on Day Two of the conference themed The Engaged University.

Greaves shared some service collaboration solutions and the challenges faced.

“If a shared service collaboration is driven either by functional need or by economic benefit, sometimes by both, and you can deliver both of these things, then it’s a happy outcome. But very often, the need that has been pursued is economic efficiency and the other is functional benefit and they are often mutually exclusive.

“The closer you get to the heart of the university – research, teaching and learning, aspects of student administration and the like – the greater the likelihood that the local requirements are paramount in the minds of that institution. That raises difficulties when it comes to forming a collaboration. In most alliances, you’re going to have to give up some autonomy, and you’re often going to have to make some compromises as well.”

In spite of this, he says, collaborations which deliver productive functional needs are possible.

Shared solutions should be an end in themselves

“Some solutions are possible only through collaboration and this is especially true when the sharing is not only a means to an end, such as economic efficiency, but is an end in itself,” he explained.

One such collaboration is the National Research and Education Network (NREN).

NRENs are specialised telecommunications providers dedicated to supporting the needs of the research and education communities within their countries. While the primary focus is to provide high-quality network connectivity, by connecting institutions to one another and to the rest of the Internet, most NRENs have grown their support offering and provide expertise and other support for a range of technologies and services needed for research, such as trust and identity, security, storage and collaboration.

Says Greaves: “The South African NREN is a complex beast. They are designed so there’s lots and lots of spare capacity for large data transfers which is increasingly necessary at the heart of successful research collaboration.”

TENET, he continued, “is a non-profit company. The eligibility for membership is limited to public universities and statutory science and research entities but we serve a community that is much wider than just the membership. So you can be the beneficiary of TENET services without being a member. However, they [members of the users community] are the ones who ultimately control the company and appoint the Board of Directors. TENET has 32 members: 26 public universities and six of the statutory science and research councils.

“This provides a critical axis of accountability and this is absolutely critical because without it, you do not have a mechanism to ensure alignment between the activities of the service provider and the community that it serves. The one thing that you don’t want in a shared collaboration is a set of circumstances in which the beneficiaries are in direct control of the service delivery, because that puts them in a position of being both the customers and managers, and those roles are sometimes in conflict with each other.”

He reiterates that TENET’s success has been based upon three key factors:

  • Strong accountability to its community, achieved primarily through its governance model.
  • Delivery of a service not attainable in any other way, or not offered by the market. NREN with its fast connectivity to a global research network is not something you could get from a commercial company at an affordable cost.
  • The TENET solution would not be achievable without collaboration with the State.

“When TENET was formed in 2000 it was a civil society endeavour with the universities acting on their own initiative with no state support. Funding started in 2007 and a lot of money has been put in by the government for SANReN, which we helped build and which we operate and has helped connect many rural campuses to the network.

The problem of accountability

However, government support comes with its own challenges.

“There are some problems encountered when collaborating with the state and the major one is accountability. You can have diametrically opposed lines of accountability and that can make structuring long-term plans extremely difficult. We’ve never found a solution to this problem and it has been a major agenda item for more than 10 years.”

TENET is the South African version of the UK’s service which is called Jisc. Earlier, in the Shared Services session, Professor David Maguire, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sussex in the UK, gave valuable insights into Jisc.

Greaves compared the two systems: “We both do cloud brokerage services and research data repository support. We have a suite of identity and trust services certifications, a number of collaboration services and our important video conferencing service. Missing from our portfolio – compared to Jisc – is any real support for teaching and learning and any real support for analytic services and systematic or structured consultancy.

“Jisc is one of the models we look to as a model for the future. We will never get to their level of sophistication or size but the suite of services that they offer is something that we should be pursuing in South Africa. It’s time that this became a major item on the agenda of higher education in South Africa,” he concluded.

In the Shared Services breakaway of the FSG, three other speakers alongside Greaves were Professor Ruksana Osman, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at University of the Witwatersrand, whose input covered shared services as a financial sustainability imperative in times of uncertainty like this. She also championed sharing services with philanthropists and private sector entities operating in the university’s context.

Professor David Maguire, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom showcased efficiencies and savings being realised by UK universities by sharing digital technology and services infrastructure to manage teaching, learning, research as well as administration. Dr Diane Parker, Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, also spoke of benefits of shared services for the higher education system.

Shared services are among strategies being championed by USAf for added efficiencies and cost savings. Shared services are being counted among interventions that could enhance long-term financial sustainability of public universities.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.